You’ve made the investment in purchasing premium, super-fresh seafood and now it’s in your kitchen. Now what do you do to assure you sustain its quality?
Whether you choose to fuss over your fish or not, the quality of the seafood you buy will have much more influence over the finished dish than anything you do in the kitchen.
-James Peterson, from Fish & Shellfish
My March Blog discussed how fishmongers such as Browne Trading go to the greatest lengths possible to source, evaluate, handle and expedite fresh catches so that the consumer can receive an optimally fresh piece of fish or shellfish. It would be a shame – and waste – to allow the quality of such a purchase to fall off simply out of negligence or ignorance of care. Here are some simple tips to help preserve the quality of your seafood during storage. But the single most important rule to remember: ALL Perishable Seafood should be immediately refrigerated. If it is being transported either from the market or via overnight delivery, make sure that the proper coolants are used to assure the seafood is not ruined in transit.
Care of Fresh Fish & Fillets
Upon arriving in the kitchen, whole fish should be removed from its wrapping, washed in very cold water and patted dry. This rinse will help cut down on natural bacteria that are present externally on the fish. If you did not have your fish gutted by your fishmonger, you should immediately gut the fish prior to refrigeration as the entrails will decay rapidly and ruin the flavor and quality of the fish (gutting is simple: take a sharp knife or shears and starting at the fish’s anus, cut up through the fish’s belly to its gills, pull out the innards, and rinse the body cavity so there are no remaining parts attached inside). Or, if easier, butcher the fish into fillets if you aren’t using a whole fish preparation. Fillets may be rinsed, dried and wrapped in a similar fashion.
Whole fish and fillets should always be stored in the coldest part of the refrigerator, and if at all possible, one that is not constantly being open and shut. It is generally recommended that for optimal quality, fish is prepared as soon as possible. However, with care, ultra fresh fish can remain excellent for up to 3 days after receipt. Most sources recommend wrapping fish/fillets tightly in plastic or butcher paper and placing them in a tray over crushed ice; if you elect to use this method please note that the flesh should not come in direct contact with the ice itself and that the ice must be replenished as it melts and breaks down. Prolonged direct contact with ice and water can damage the color, texture and flavor of the fish.
Freezing Your Seafood
Fresh Fish & Fillets can be frozen if necessary. The best practice is to rinse and dry the fish and then vacuum seal and freeze immediately upon receipt. Freezer bags are acceptable for short term storage – making sure to press all the air out to minimize the risk of freezer burn. Fish should be consumed no later than 6 months, but is considered optimal at 2 weeks. For best results, fish should be thawed in refrigeration 1-2 days prior to use; never thaw at room temperature or in a microwave as it will greatly diminish quality. While some recommend running cold water over it to thaw it out, this is a practice that is usually done in a pinch (perhaps the one exception to this are frozen shrimp, which seem to withstand coming up to temperature this way without too much loss of quality). Some even say you can cook frozen fillets without thawing them first, but if you do so, take care as you will likely not get great results. It is our recommendation that live shellfish should not be frozen (a typical home refrigerator is not cold enough to reliably do so). If you have bought a pre-packaged, frozen seafood item, place it immediately into the freezer and follow the package directions to thaw.
Handling Live Lobsters and Shellfish
Live Lobsters – Immediately store in refrigeration upon receipt, covered in seaweed (usually included in shipment), damp towels or paper. Never store lobsters in fresh water or ice – it will kill them. Do not store in air tight plastic containers or bags as this can kill them as well. It is recommended that Live Lobsters should be cooked within 24 hours of receipt.
Mussels – Mussels ship alive. Healthy mussels will be open slightly – to check if they are alive, simply tap on the shell and they should slowly close. Discard mussels that have broken or still remain open after being tapped together. Store in refrigeration upon receipt, preferably in a mesh bag or bowl, covered in damp towels or paper (this keeps them from drying out). Again, never place them in fresh water or ice, or store in air tight plastic containers or bags. Do not eat any cooked mussels whose shells remain closed; discard them altogether before plating. Mussels are ideal when prepared day of purchase/arrival, but can keep for a few days in the refrigerator.
Clams – Like mussels, clams are alive. Always discard clams that have broken or are open (note that soft shell clams (“steamers”) however do not close due to the protrusion of their “necks”- which are actually their siphons – to check their vitality, see if the siphon retracts when touched or check their odor). Store in refrigeration upon receipt, covered in damp towels or paper. Do not store in fresh water or ice. Do not store in air tight plastic containers or bags. Best when prepared day of arrival.
Oysters – Product is alive. Discard oysters that have broken or still remain open after pressing on their shell. Store in refrigeration upon receipt, covered in damp towels or paper, preferably so they lie flat (this reduces loss of their “liquor”). Like the other shellfish mentioned, never store oysters in fresh water or ice, nor store them in closed, air tight plastic containers or bags. Although oysters are best when prepared day of arrival, they will generally live up to 5 days in refrigeration.
There is a bit of a debate concerning soaking shellfish in salt water (often with cornmeal added) to help them purge any sand inside their shells. Some recommend it, but others denounce it as they believe the process can do more harm than good and will rapidly shorten the life of the shellfish. The fact is that most of the shellfish mentioned here – clams, mussels, and oysters – are farm raised and generally purged in advance, or are harvested from clean, sandy bottoms or ropes. Wild harvested clams and mussels may be the exception to the rule as many of them lie in muddier beds and are dredged to be harvested. Regardless, it is always recommended that shellfish are cleaned by scrubbing their shells under cold running water prior to preparing. This removes any external sand, mud and grit that may remain after harvest.
Finally, I found a tip published in the New York Times Seafood Cookbook (St. Martins Press, 2003), edited by Florence Fabricant, that I had never heard of. In cases where fish has “waited an extra day to be cooked”, she suggests “sprinkling a few drops of vodka” on the fish and re wrapping it in clean paper to keep the freshness intact a little longer. While I never tried this tactic, it bears investigation and may be handy in an instance where the fish didn’t end up being cooked for dinner like initially planned.
Using simple steps like those discussed above will help extend the shelf life and freshness of your seafood purchase – and maximize the quality of your final prepared dish. If you have questions about the care of a particular seafood item, you should always ask your fishmonger for instructions.
~Nick Branchina, Director of Marketing